Friday, April 07, 2006

Are you mocking me? Good.

Next time one crying baby sets off a chorus of cries, take pause. Empathy is developing in those little minds right before your very eyes.

How empathy develops. The window for empathy begins to narrow at about eighteen months of age when the newest evolutionary addition to the neocortex (the brain’s massive frontal lobes, which occupy the area in back of the forehead), finish their basic hookup to the emotional limbic system.

Attunement—how you reinforce empathy. Attunement is the natural instinct on the part of the caretaker to respond to and imitate the baby through mirroring the emotion, or playing back of the child’s inner feelings. If these feelings are reinforced, the nerve tracts carrying them will sprout new connections and myelinate. If not, they will weaken.

How you know empathy is developing. An infant who has been mirrored and comforted develops the ability to empathize even before she is aware of her own independent existence. Newborn babies show a limited type of empathy by crying when they hear another infant in distress, a reflex called motor mimicry, which soon gives way to more attempts to console others.

What to do: If a child falls down and cries she will develop empathy when a parent mimmicks her hurt, then picks her up and soothes her. Mimic or mirror the behaviors, expressions, and vocalizations of a child, even happy ones. Doing so strengthens the tracts the child’s frontal lobes and limbic system.

Other odd empathy facts:

Newborn babies are born pre-wired to respond to human touch, speech, and facial patterning.
Only hours after birth the infant moves her body in a precise synchrony with the speech patterns of her caretaker.
3-4 months: A baby prefers human voices and faces.
Six or seven months: Can mimic other emotions, and hopefully is mimicked in return.

Paraphrased from "A Woman's Book of Life, The Biology, Psychology, and Spirituality of the Feminine Life Cycle," Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.

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